Review: Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

May 26th, 2012 by jkastronis

I recently finished off Player of Games by Iain M. Banks earlier in the week. A far-future sci-fi novel, it is the second novel set in the Foundation setting, following Consider Phlebas. Despite being written and published after Consider, Player is often considered the better introductory book for the series. I had already read Consider and found it very good, so I was eager to read Player and see how it could be better.

I was not disappointed. Player of Games is an exceptional piece of work. I literally spent several nights staying up until 3:00 AM trying to justify just a few pages more of reading before I went to bed. I had a lot of difficulty getting up in the morning because of it. It is written amazingly precisely; rarely is wasted a word which did not advance my understanding of the world and people inhabiting it.

The novel is really more of a character examination of its protagonist Jernau Morat Gurgeh than anything driven strongly by the plot, though the plot is there and is very interesting in itself. Gurgeh is a master game player, who has several glandular modifications that allow him to secret chemicals to assist him in playing. He regularly publishes papers on the theory of games and receives visitors from across the galaxy to come play him.

However, he is dissatisfied with his life. He finds himself bored with most of the games he’s dominating at and more finds amusement through the grating antics of a drone named Mawhrin-Skel than anything else. Contact, the part of the Culture that deals with other cultures, wishes Gurgeh to travel to a far-away nation called the Empire of Azad, where a massively complicated game also called Azad is used to determine an individual’s social standing and career. Despite being bored with his life, Gurgeh is also extremely reluctant to leave and initially turns them down.

When he accidentally cheats during a friendly game against an amateur, however, he gets a brief thrill. Later, he plays against a young prodigy in a certain game. She actually starts to beat him and he realizes she’s attempting to defeat him in a perfect way that’s only been theoretically demonstrated before. He manages to turn the tide and during a break, Mawhrin offers to help him cheat to get a perfect win by revealing the disposition of his opponent’s pieces.

Gurgeh eventually agrees, but falls a few points short of the win due to bad luck. Later, Mawhrin blackmails Gurgeh with a recording of their conversation where he agrees to cheat. Mawhrin wants Gurgeh’s help in being reinstated with Special Circumstances, the military wing of the Culture. In order to preserve his reputation, Gurgeh agrees and gets in touch with Contact, agreeing to go play the game in return for Mawhrin being allowed back into Special Circumstances. Contact eventually agrees to do what it can as long as Gurgeh goes.

For the next 2 years, Gurgeh makes the slow journey to the Empire of Azad, learning about the game from the super-intelligent compute of the ship he travels on. People in the Empire learn the game from birth, so Gurgeh does not expect to fare well and only wishes to make a good showing. However, when he arrives, he plays surprisingly well and advances deep into a tournament that determines the political positions of nearly everyone in the Empire, from the Emperor on down.

As he plays, Gurgeh also begins experiencing the crushing discrimination that the game brings to the Empire. The Azadians have three genders, with the apex gender holding down both men and women through the game. As he becomes more disgusted, he begins to examine his own life, the nature of the Culture, and how the Empire has come to exist.

Though the plot of playing the game and advancing through the rounds is the plot of the novel, it’s really Gurgeh’s internal crises that really serve as the driving force in the book. And it is intensely interesting. Though the reader gets very little glimpse of how the game is played, the actions of Gurgeh and his opponents serve to be incredibly engaging.

An interesting part is that no one in the novel is really entirely likeable, except for a few characters that are only around for a few brief moments. Gurgeh is selfish, needy, (at times) whiny, prone to ennui, and prone to irritation. Other characters are often flighty, unpredictable, and unreliable, or aggressive and dismissive, or just flat out jerks. It’s a credit to the compelling turmoil of Gurgeh that he manages to be sympathetic despite his many flaws and I certainly rooted for him to succeed, even when the implications of his success weren’t made clear (though I certainly had my suspicions which, in the end, turned out to be correct).

I did find the ending somewhat weaker than the rest of the novel and felt the payoff was rather anticipated. The actions of a major character were somewhat… bizarre and seemingly had no point and ran counter to his own goals. Plus, there was a little twist at the end about the true nature of one character which did not serve much in my eyes. It wasn’t necessarily predictable, but it didn’t really have much impact either.

Player of Games definitely made me hungry for more Culture novels in a way that Consider Phlebas did not. I have a few others that I resisted picking up because I want to avoid reading similar novels back to back, but I’m certainly looking forward to getting to them.

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